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General Challenges African-American Students to Excel

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

MONTGOMERY, Ala., Feb. 24, 2005 – Showing that a rough beginning can lead to a happy ending, a senior Army officer today challenged a group of students here to strive for excellence.

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Army Maj. Gen. Ronald L. Johnson challenged a group of students at Alabama State University to strive for excellence and told them that defeat makes success much more satisfying. Johnson, director of the Army Installation Management Agency, made his comments during DoD's African American History Month observance and Historically Black Colleges and Universities luncheon at the university. Photo by Rudi Williams

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Maj. Gen. Ronald L. Johnson spoke to students, educators and Defense Department personnel during DoD's African-American History Month observance and Historically Black Colleges and Universities luncheon at Alabama State University.

The general told them the story of an African-American youth boy who succeeded in life even though he was born and reared in Chicago's toughest neighborhood the West Side.

"Sociologists today would call this part of town a socio-economically deprived population," Johnson said. "The boy was from a single-parent home that benefited from welfare."

Johnson, who, as director of the Army Installation Management Agency, manages 181 Army installations, more than 75,000 military and civilian personnel and a budget exceeding $8 billion, told of the youth's early childhood.

"His mother and grandparents raised him. He barely knew his father, and only met him briefly, when the boy was around 9 or 10 and his father visited him a few days after being released from prison.

"That was the last time the boy ever saw him," said the U.S. Military Academy graduate, who holds master's degrees in operations research and strategic planning.

"The lives of the older brother and younger sister were destroyed by crime, poverty and drugs," said Johnson. "He's the only member of his family still alive today. His brother died young too young from the effects of drugs. His sister would later suffer the same fate. With that kind of a disadvantage, who would believe he could ever succeed in anything?"

The boy, Johnson said, found his opportunity in the junior ROTC program at his high school. "He found it in a crusty and stubborn retired chief warrant officer who must have seen more in the youngster than he saw in himself at the time, because he pushed him hard to excel," the general noted. "He found opportunity again in the negative taunting from his own peers, whose disapproval only added to his resolve to succeed where others encouraged him to fail. He finally found opportunity at West Point as a cadet, leading to a commission. And he still finds opportunity today right here among all of you."

Johnson said it's an amazing story that a young black man from Chicago's West Side could succeed in mainstream America. "But it's true, because that determined African-American stands before you today, grateful for the opportunities God has given him," he said.

Education is the strongest weapon in breaking the chains of poverty, oppression, bigotry and hatred, the general told the audience. "Only by continuing to educate yourselves will you help others to see," he emphasized.

"The Department of Defense has been America's champion in promoting equal opportunity, and embracing diversity for improving the potential of the armed forces," he said. "Our military has long been an institution that sought to end discriminatory treatment, and to promote racial harmony. It's one institution that recognizes you for what you can do, not for what you are."

Quoting W.E.B. DuBois, who chartered the Niagara Movement in 1905 that aimed to educate African-Americans, Johnson said, "Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States."

Johnson told the students that they are America's warriors in the battle to defeat ignorance. "Your tool in this quest for excellence is continuing your education," he said. "Most importantly, you're the leaders for those who will follow in your footsteps."

He offered advice to the college, high school and middle school students in the audience.

"For those in college now, remain in college and leave a trail for others to follow so that the quest for excellence is well-defined," Johnson said. "Continue to further your academic foundation as you pursue higher education.

"For those of you in high school and middle school, continue the quest for excellence," he continued. "You have just begun to climb the mountain that leads to excellence."

The general reminded the students that his personal decision to strive for excellence to overcome the disadvantages of his early life has made all the difference. "I accepted the challenge in high school, and it changed my life forever," said Johnson, who received the Bronze Star for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. "Never let defeat discourage you. It only makes success that much more satisfying."

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Army Installation Management Agency

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